The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.8, “The Scouring of the Shire”

 In the Lord of the Rings re-read, we have reached the penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” (But not the penultimate post; there will be at least one about the Appendices, one about the third movie, and one wrapping things up.) The usual spoilers and comments follow after the jump.

What Happens

The four hobbits come to the Brandywine Bridge and are told by the hobbits guarding it that they are not allowed to admit anyone at night. Merry and Pippin climb over and find Bill Ferny, who unlocks the gate after Merry threatens him and flees with a farewell kick from Bill the pony.

The next evening, a band of Shirriffs purport to arrest them. The travelers suffer their company for a time the next day, but eventually leave the Shirriffs behind on foot. They come to Bywater and are confronted by human ruffians. Pippin, backed by Merry and Sam, draws his sword on their leader after Frodo defies him. The humans leave to get backup.

The travelers raise the Shire: Merry blows the horn of Rohan, Sam goes to Tom Cotton’s farm (speaking briefly with Rosie), and Pippin goes to Tuckborough. Acting on a plan of Merry’s, the hobbits kill one human who attacks them and take prisoner another twenty-odd who surrender. During the night, they lay plans and hear from Farmer Cotton of how Lotho made himself Chief, backed by the ruffians, and how Sharkey came about a month ago and took control, running things in a wantonly destructive manner that has now progressed to killing.

In the morning, about a hundred Tooks arrive ahead of about the same number of ruffians. This time almost all the humans fight, and most are killed in the ensuing battle (again conducted by Merry), along with nineteen hobbits. Afterward, the travelers go to Bag End looking for Lotho, but find it filthy and empty.

As they are about to leave, they are greeted by Saruman, a.k.a. Sharkey, who tells them that he decided to beat them to the Shire and wreck their home just as his was wrecked. Frodo orders him to leave. Saruman attempts to stab Frodo, but his knife snaps on the mithril coat. Frodo still refuses to allow Saruman’s death, out of respect for his past greatness and hope that he will find a cure. Saruman abuses Wormtongue, telling everyone present that Wormtongue killed Lotho (on Saruman’s orders). Wormtongue snaps and cuts Saruman’s throat; he is immediately shot dead by hobbits. A figure of mist forms above Saruman’s body, looking to the West, but a cold west wind dissolves it, bringing the War to an end.


This is a very full chapter, but the thing that interested me most about it is the amount of characterization we get for the four hobbits. We haven’t had this much focus on the four of them for a very long time.

Of all of them, I think Merry may have changed the least. He was previously shown to be insightful and a thorough planner; obviously he has now expanded his areas of competence (probably during the months in Minas Tirith), but he’s still the one planning and directing almost everything. And working hard individually, too; before the battle he’s said to have been out all night, and of course he is the one who kills the leader of the ruffians, “a great squint-eyed brute like a huge orc.”

But Merry hasn’t turned dictatorial, and still listens to Frodo. Indeed one of the things I found surprisingly touching about this chapter is the way that Frodo is not only still fairly active and assertive, but so clearly esteemed by his friends. It’s less obvious with Merry, as he’s closer in age than Pippin is to Frodo (Sam is a couple years older than Merry, but they aren’t from the same class) and they always felt more like peers to me. But it’s the ruffian’s insult to Frodo that causes Pippin to draw his sword (“His thoughts went back to the Field of Cormallen, and here was a squint-eyed rascal calling the Ring-bearer ‘little cock-a-whoop.’”), and of course Sam still sees Frodo as the leader and describes him as such to Robin Smallburrow and Farmer Cotton. And while Frodo doesn’t fight or direct the fighting, he is very clear on what he wants: as little killing as possible, and mercy for Saruman and Lotho. He doesn’t get all of it, but not for lack of trying or being listened to.

Pippin is still more light-hearted than the rest, it seems to me. When they leave the Shirriffs behind, he’s the one with a comment that strike me as at least half-humorous:

‘You’re breaking arrest, that’s what you’re doing,’ said the leader ruefully, ‘and I can’t be answerable.’

‘We shall break a good many things yet, and not ask you to answer,’ said Pippin. ‘Good luck to you!’

But otherwise I think Pippin may have changed the most, what with the demanding respect for Frodo at swordpoint and the leading the Tooks and the fighting and all. It’s quite satisfying to see.

Sam remains pragmatic (he says at least twice that he can tell that there’s work ahead) but has added assertiveness. He was never completely shy—see his conversation with Ted Sandyman in “The Shadow of the Past”—but I’d be surprised if he would have talked back to the Shirriff-leader before this journey, for instance.

(By the way, “Shirriff” is an incredibly annoying word to type.)

While we’re talking about hobbit characterization, I feel I ought to say something about Rosie, as this chapter has her first and, I think, only lines. Drawing on three paragraphs of dialogue, I infer that she: (1) is an optimist, because she didn’t believe Sam was dead; (2) has an admirable ability to focus on what’s actually important (“If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?”); and (3) has enough perception and kindness see that Sam is discombobulated by that comment and to reassure him with a compliment and expression of concern. Which is more than some characters get, certainly.

* * *

A couple of recurring things I noticed about this chapter. First, this may just be logistics, but it seems like people are blowing horns at every turn in this chapter. I’d remembered Merry’s, of course, but there are far more than that. I count eight, blown by: (1) someone on the other side of the gate at the Brandywine Bridge, when they first arrive; (2) someone guarding that gate, after Merry and Pippin climb over; (3) the ruffians scared off by Pippin in Bywater; (4) Merry, when they decide to raise the Shire; (5) Merry again, when Pippin leaves to get the Tooks; (6) Merry again, during the battle, when some of the humans break out; (7) Ted Sandyman, when he sees the travelers’ escort and (8) Merry in response. This is not actually more than all the rest of the book put together, but it does seem to be a pretty high concentration, and spread out over a number of people (not like Boromir, or Helm’s Deep). Again, this may be just logistics, the easiest way to communicate, or I may only have noticed it because I remember the horn of Rohan, but I went to the trouble of counting them so I might as well note it here.

Second, on the continuing theme of inns, the travelers are repeatedly thwarted in their hopes of going to inns at the opening of this chapter. At the Brandywine, Merry points out that the Bridge Inn has been pulled down. Frodo asks the Shirriffs to escort them to The Floating Log, but that’s closed too. And then Sam finds out from Robin that, in fact, all the inns are closed, by order of Lotho. This happens pretty early in the chapter, and it’s not a major part, but since inns were such a big part of the Shire’s life before we left, I think it’s a telling detail. (And one that requires we hear of re-opened inns in the next chapter. I remember comments about beer, so I think that’s a safe bet.)

* * *

Some logistical stuff. They’re quasi-arrested on November 1st; Sharkey showed up at the end of September. In prior comments, Jerry Friedman had commented about the strangeness of the delay in getting home here, and I have to agree that the purpose seems to be allowing Saruman to get entrenched. As Robin, the Shirriff friend of Sam’s, says, “If we all got angry together something might be done.” Lotho alone, or even a little Saruman, wasn’t going to get ordinary hobbits angry enough to justify taking up arms. And the confrontation with Saruman was clearly a necessary part of the story, meaning that dislodging his followers would also be required, and that would be a lot harder if the Shire hadn’t been roused.

(We’re not told why Lotho was killed; his mother was arrested after Sharkey arrived, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that he protested and was killed as a result, but the timing on that isn’t explicit.)

This chapter also demonstrated to me that I have absolutely no feel for the size of the Shire’s population. Robin tells Sam that there’s “hundreds of Shirriffs,” and Pippin brings a hundred Tooks, which are those the Thain can spare from running down other brigands. The significance of those numbers, as proportions of the Shire? No idea.

On the other side, we’re told that the ruffians “seemed to have no leader among them who understood warfare.” I imagine that Saruman’s truly competent minions would have been at Isengard, that he wouldn’t have wasted those people on transporting goods and intimidating mere hobbits. As such, they wouldn’t particularly need to understand warfare on this scale, though you’d still think that the idea of scouting ahead in hostile territory would be self-evident. On the other hand, arrogance is dangerous stuff.

* * *

Also dangerous is greed, which is in typical Tolkien fashion is the source of Lotho’s downfall. As Farmer Cotton put it,

Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about. It soon came out that he already did own a sight more than was good for him; and he was always grabbing more . . .

More than was good for him, indeed. He doesn’t seem to have lost control for quite a while, though, as it was in early January that they arrested the Mayor, and it seems to have been Saruman’s arrival that really dislodged his control.

Because the Foreword to the Second Edition specifically mentions the mill, it’s worth noting the difference between Lotho and Saruman’s changes. The Foreword says that the Scouring “does not” have

any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten . . . . Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.

Lotho’s new mill is “outlandish,” but appears to be at worst unnecessary, as there isn’t enough corn to justify a bigger mill. Saruman doesn’t bother to pretend to use it as a mill, just using it to generate noise, air, and water pollution. Neither of which is, itself, an argument against industrialization, merely stupidity and malice.

Which brings us to Saruman. Still dripping contempt for the hobbits getting above themselves (“riding along with all those great people . . . (and) dangling after” Gandalf), still rolling in schadenfreude—I’d say it’s his only pleasure now, but I think it’s no longer schadenfreude if you’re actively causing the misfortunes of others that you’re reveling in? But he’s been too far consumed by his contempt and spite and it leads to his death. I’m sure he always disdained Wormtongue, but he would have previously hid it a lot better. Now he’s completed his descent into treating Wormtongue as subhuman: he calls him “Worm” and kicks him in the face while he’s cowering, whimpering, and groveling on the ground—after he’s come out “crawling, almost like a dog.” And Saruman reaps the consequences: Wormtongue “snarl(s) like a dog” when he cuts Saruman’s throat.

Also, Saruman’s attempt to stab Frodo is far beneath him, crude violence from a master of subtlety and indirection. He retains enough intelligence to recognize that he has not dragged Frodo down to his level and that his revenge is as a result no longer sweet, but otherwise he is far more diminished than I’d previously understood. Which is reflected in the events after his death: a shape of mist forms over his corpse and looks forward the West, but is “dissolved into nothing” by a cold wind from that direction. Of course, this is a pale cousin to Sauron’s demise, which resulted in a “huge shape of shadow” that was “blown away” by “a great wind.” In addition, knowing what we do from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, we can infer that Saruman has been denied a return to Valinor. In another book I’d also think that the line about “dissolved into nothing” suggests a destruction of Saruman’s spirit or soul, but not here. Gandalf says, in “The Last Debate,” that the destruction of the Ring would turn Sauron into “a mere spirit of malice,” and a worse fate for Saruman seems unlikely, besides my doubt that such things are even possible in Tolkien’s cosmology.

Last chapter proper next time, somewhat to my bemusement (we’re really almost done!).

« Return of the King VI.7 | Index

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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